Why Documenting Employee Performance Matters

Writing poor performance reviews is difficult, isn’t it?  Documenting poor employee performance throughout the year and not just annually at review time is even more difficult.  Few human resource professionals want to de-motivate an employee by compiling and sharing with the employee a growing laundry list of areas where the employee is failing to perform.  Even performance management plans are often worded in such a way as to soften the true intent behind the plan: put the employee on the track towards improvement or set out a timeline for the termination of the employment relationship.

As employers, you know that “poor performance” as a reason for just cause dismissal is nearly impossible to obtain, even if you have documented performance issues.  If you have to terminate an employee for poor performance or fit you almost always terminate without cause and provide the necessary amount of notice.  Given that, is poor performance all that necessary to track with great detail?

The answer, of course, is a big YES.   An example will illustrate best:

  • An employee has performance issues in a particular position.  There is some concern on the part of HR that it might be a personality conflict with the supervisor so the employee is moved to another department of the company without any documentation of the performance issues.  Performance in the new position is mediocre but there is turnover at the supervisory level in that department and again there is no documentation of the performance issues.
  • The employee applies for an acting supervisory position to fill a vacancy and the decision is taken to let her act in the position while it is filled permanently, in the hopes that the employee might find her niche as a supervisor and because there is no one else willing or available to fill the position.  The employee performs very poorly in the supervisory role.  She creates a toxic work environment in her department and her reporting employees approach management with complaints.
  • There is a formal process ongoing to fill the position which she is acting in, so management decides to let that process continue rather than take action to deal with this employee.  There is talk about dismissing the employee once the process is over as it is now acknowledged at the management level that the employee is not a good fit and is problematic in the workplace.  The employee applies for the permanent position, as do a number of other both internal and external candidates.  Part way through the hiring process, the employee tells management that she is pregnant and will be taking leave.

The employer is now in a very difficult position, both in terms of the application process for the permanent supervisory position as well as any contemplated termination of the employee.  They have almost no documentation to substantiate the growing performance issues.  In fact, from an outsider’s point of view, the employee has been promoted.  Any documentation which the employer tries to put into place after the pregnancy announcement is made will be coloured by the announcement.  The employer now has great exposure to a human rights complaint both on the appointment and any decision to terminate employment.

If this scenario sounds familiar, you aren’t alone.  Numerous clients have approached me with questions about similar situations.  The first question I ask the employer is what documentation they have of the performance issues and it is almost never a complete representation of what they orally report to me.  So employers and particularly human resource professionals: document, document, document. Don’t sugar coat performance problems.  You can be frank about performance issues and still motivate the employee through a comprehensive improvement plan, particularly if the employee is engaged in the plan design.  It is essential that a complete and accurate record of employee issues are kept.

Employers/ HR professionals, do you have a preferred way of dealing with employee performance problems?